An Opera Partnership’s Next Step: A Fable About Happiness

In a scene from George Benjamin’s new opera “Imagine a day like this” The piece premiered at France’s Aix-en-Provence music festival on Wednesday, when the composer and his assistant interrupted an interviewer. The composer asks if there is space in the schedule to speak. “Five minutes,” replied the assistant.

Thankfully, Benjamin was able to spend quite a bit of time talking to journalists when he met them at his West London home on a sunny Monday in May.

If the premiere of A Picture A Day Like This, co-written with playwright Martin Crimp, is highly anticipated, it’s because the 63-year-old Benjamin’s new work has been in the works for a long time. Initially, its infrequentness meant a creative stagnation early in his career. He produced only a few minutes of music each year, but these days he’s been well received by critics.

His early stage productions with Crimp, Written on Skin (2012) and A Lesson in Love and Violence (2018), quickly entered the repertoires of major European opera houses. But the closest resemblance to Picture a Day Like This in its scale, length, and subject matter is her first opera, the one-act Into the Little Hill, released in 2006.

In fact, “Picture,” also a one-act play, could in the future become a double feature, combined with “Into the Little Hill,” a retelling of The Pied Piper’s fairy tale. Yet “Picture” stands alone as an operatic allegory about the pursuit of happiness. Crimp said in an interview that this is a combination of two plots. The first, “The Happy Man’s Shirt,” is an ancient European satire in which a dying ruler is said to be cured if he finds the Happy Man’s Shirt. But the only truly happy people he finds are those who are too poor to own things. The second, based on a Buddhist story, tells the story of a woman who goes in search of a miracle to bring her young child back from the dead.

With a chamber orchestra and a cast of five, the one-hour opera is “a sort of quest like Alice in Wonderland or Voltaire’s Candide,” Crimp said. “But if you like, this is a learning structure that follows one of her characters from start to finish and meets a variety of new people.”

Crimp said that “Picture” has “a kind of linear, continuous impetus” compared to previous operas that revolved around fixed points and situations. It tells the story of a mother who has lost her child, searching for a button in the sleeve of a happy person’s shirt (a button that will surely bring her child back). Along the way, she meets various flawed characters.

“Variety is very important in such a structure,” said Crimp, noting that early discussions with Benjamin about opera “gave him permission to experiment with very different tones and atmospheres through different encounters. he added.

Benjamin therefore said that the work is “like a series of bubbles” through which the woman passes. With each moment having no precedent, no consequences, and no accumulated material to refer to or move forward with, each time the scene changed, he felt like he was “starting an almost entirely new piece.” .

This solution was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov (whose writings Benjamin noted in composing The Picture) and his mosaic-like approach. Ideas arrive fully formed in Nabokov’s head, but bringing them to life on paper involves flying through the structure of the work. “He ended up writing something on page 238, then he wrote something on page 5, and then he wrote something on page 15,” Benjamin said. “A little bit at a time, these things merge from different angles, and then suddenly you have seamless text at the end, but it wasn’t structured that way.”

“My own experience is that starting from scratch is a big mistake,” he added.

Benjamin and Crimp is one of the most successful operatic partnerships of our time. These were introduced through musicologist Lawrence Dreyfus in 2005 after Benjamin met with dozens of playwrights and film directors, including Arthur Miller and David Lynch, with the intention of writing an opera. Composer Harrison Birtwistle advised Benjamin to “find one person who really works and stay with him.”

According to Benjamin, Crimp wrote a “terrifying, unflinching, uncompromising play” that contrasted with the man with whom he felt “natural tenderness” when he first met him. Crimp said the relationship has continued because they both “have a special respect for the other’s work.” Lines are accurately drawn through collaboration between the two. They determine the story, structure, and overall trajectory, then depart from each other to get to it. Mr. Benjamin said Mr. Crimp would not email the manuscript. “Suddenly one morning it arrived in an A4 brown envelope,” he added.

At Aix Festival, Daniel Jeanneteau and Marie-Christine Soma, who directed the premiere of Into the Little Hill in Paris, will direct Picture. In their narrative treatment, a woman is locked up in what they call a “mental prison” where the characters she meets–two lovers, an artisan and a collector–enter and exit her life. do.

“This is an adventure of the soul,” said Jeanneteau, adding that the key to the work is its simplicity.

Simplicity creates mediocrity. This is a probable consideration for playwrights, but much more difficult for operas. When writing “Into the Little Hill,” Crimp had the idea in the back of his mind to incorporate the mundane words of everyday life: electricity, concrete, refrigerator. With its characters’ decidedly modern interests—mattresses, chlorpromazine, Austrian lakeside retreats—Picture brings him one step closer to his goal.

“You can play with the banality at the edge of a musical composition, but ultimately it’s done to pave the way for deeper metaphysical spaces,” Crimp says, like “Picture.” To tell.

“I have always considered orchestral works, and even chamber music, to be theatrical,” said Benjamin. Still, the dramatic shift in tone in Crimp’s “picture” libretto brought new dramatic instability to his operatic writing.

Benjamin said of Crimp, “I think he enjoys challenging me. He says, ‘You’ve never done it before, this will be hard, let’s see what you can do.'” said. “And I like it.”

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